Power of democracy unites the exasperated

SCMP April 03, 2008

Looking at Malaysia today, one can better understand why the likes of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Henry Tang Ying-yen, the Tien brothers, Stanley Ho Hung-sun and the like - not to mention the Communist Party - are so opposed to full direct elections any time soon. A sense of euphoria, of release, exists in Malaysia, so that even many who voted for the government, in the interests of stability, believe the country is better off for having delivered a stunning rebuke to those in power.

After 50 years of unbroken dominance, the United Malays National Organisation and its tame Chinese and Indian ethnic party allies have not only been humbled; the setback has also sparked a blame game among Umno figures. Party infighting not only puts the future of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in doubt, it also raises a wide range of possible outcomes, including even Umno losing power to an opposition coalition.

The voters' verdict could not be ascribed to the usual suspects for electoral disaster - the economy or scandals involving senior figures. Indeed, the economy is doing well. No, this was the triumph of an all-races reaction against cronyism, nepotism, abuse of power, lack of open government, decline of judicial and civil service independence, and rising wealth and income disparities.

Exasperation at these tendencies had, first, made it possible to bring together widely differing parties - the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party and the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia - into a coalition headed in all but name by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and his Malay Keadilan party. Confronted with a choice, most voters in Peninsular Malaysia preferred the opposition. The ruling coalition survived due to the support of local parties in Sabah and Sarawak, and a gerrymandered electoral system.

For the first time, almost as many Malays as non-Malays voted against the government, explicitly rejecting the core notion that only Umno could protect Malay dominance and economic and cultural interests against Chinese, Indian and foreign influence. For the first time, the race-based structure of Malaysian politics was dealt a blow. For the first time, middle- and lower-income people, and professionals, saw their interests defined by issues other than race.

But this was not so much an outburst of good-neighbourly ethics. The electoral verdict was the product of exasperation at the gravy train that, for years, has rewarded Umno and other political insiders with sweet deals - similar, perhaps, to the relationship in Hong Kong between the administration and property and other powerful vested interests.

It was exasperation at the way a few families ruled the roost. Even Mr Abdullah, who is viewed as honest, gave his son-in-law huge influence in the party and the government, and access to lucrative business deals.

It was exasperation at the muddying of the distinction between politicians and government servants, which has been going on for years in Malaysia and is now being copied by Mr Tsang. It was exasperation at the way judicial independence has been undermined ever since Mahathir Mohamad sacked the chief justice and other judges who would not do his bidding. In Hong Kong, the judiciary is still intact but the Tsang administration would clearly like to erode the separation of powers.

It was exasperation that the fruits of economic growth have been so ill-distributed, with government policies helping to make a few mega rich while failing, for reasons of the elites' self-interest, to address with more than words the issue of income inequality. Malaysia shares with Hong Kong a bad and worsening record of income distribution. In Malaysia, that brought low-income urban Malays, Chinese and Indians together for the first time in electoral history.

Hong Kong is fortunate in having no similar racial divide. But without democracy, it lacks the political means to address the ills that it has in common with Malaysia.





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